Get to Know What You Don’t Know

Back when I taught computer graphics and web design courses, I would introduce my students to this concept by drawing quadrants on the whiteboard during the second week of class:

4 Quadrants: Unconscious Incompetent, Unconscious Competent, Conscious Incompetent, Conscious Competent

I was trying to introduce them to the idea that sometimes you aren’t aware when you don’t know something. And that in class they should work to become aware of what they don’t know (conscious of incompetence), and then practice until they became skilled at something previously unknown (conscious & competent).

One student’s explanation of unconscious incompetence: “When you didn’t even know something was a thing.”

When I am in a situation I find difficult, if I’m honest, there is usually something I don’t know, and it’s impacting my ability to skillfully handle the difficulty. I find it useful to try and identify what I’m unconscious of and see if it’s a skill I need to build. I’ve started thinking of the quadrants as a model of learning progression, starting with ignorance and ending with the mastery of a skill:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: You are unaware of the skill and your lack of proficiency
  2. Conscious Incompetence: You are aware of the skill and your lack of proficiency
  3. Consciously Competent: You are able to use that skill, but only with effort
  4. Unconsciously Competent: Performing the skill becomes automatic

Learning model illustration by Matt Kissick

If I can become aware of a skill that I lack, this model is the way out of a difficult situation, though often over time, since practice is usually required to become consciously competent. Still, it really helps in terms of moving forward. Maybe you can use it, too.

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